Thursday, 6 September 2012

Scratching Out Sarajevo


It doesn't seem to matter where I go in former Yugoslavia. I turn up at a town, plug its name into Google and discover that it was the recent site of something horrific: a rape camp in Foča, a prison in which inmates were tortured to death in Sremska Mitrovica or the site of a massacre in Vukovar. I suppose that's what happens when you cycle around a former battlefield. Especially one that's been a battlefield on and off for over seven hundred years. Thank God next year I only have Hungary, Romania, the former USSR and Ireland. Ah shit.

Of all the places I've been in recent weeks the only one with some hope in its story is Sarajevo. In all the others, people were endlessly tortured and slaughtered or women were relentlessly raped but Sarajevo was a city that, despite suffering plenty of death of its own, braved it out and didn't give up. Pyrrhic victory though it may have been, it was at least a victory.

Last week I slipped into Sarajevo by the road that had been known as Sniper's Alley. It was the route from the airport to the centre of town, a nightmare of a ride that would have seen your vehicle peppered with bullets from gunmen hidden in the tall buildings on either side of the road. And me without a cycling helmet!

After fixing a cheap room in a crumbling banana yellow and lime green concrete precinct near the centre of the old town I went out to meet Julian, an OU student, and Fedya, his Bosnian colleague. Julian had been a UN peacekeeper here during the siege and is now back to help train army officers in peace management, using lessons learned from the Bosnian conflict when things didn't go as well as they might have done. He admitted that a lot of mistakes were made. Fedya is a local who now works with Julian and lived through the siege from age 12 to 15. I thought my early teens were traumatic.

Fedya and Julian

We met in town in Baščaršija Square, known by tourists as Pigeon Square because they can't pronounce Baščaršija, or the really not so difficult "bash-shar-she-er". I'd love the Bosnians to get their own back and pronounce it Piggy-On Square but, alas, they don't.

Together we walked to Sarajevo's brewery. The brewery had been an important lifeline during the siege. It has its own spring and so, as one of the few sources of unpoisonable water in town, the Sarajevans would queue to get their share in a city starved of all basic utilities. Julian told me that, as the thirsty hauled away their plastic tubs of water, cocky snipers on the surrounding hills would aim to pierce their containers.

Let's meet in Piggy On Square

On the way to the brewery Fedya pointed out local attractions. First we passed the corner where, in 1914, Gavrilo Princip blew away Archduke Franz Ferdinand thereby launching World War I and, ninety years later, a successful UK guitar band. Then we saw the Turbeh, the tomb of seven wrongly convicted and beheaded brothers. There's a belief that if you visit the site and talk to the lads in the right order, the question to which you desperately seek an answer will be relayed by the mutterings of the first person you hear upon leaving. I thought it might be fun to hang around outside and shout out useful answers: "A boy or a girl? Neither. It's a fish" or "Of course your arse looks fat in those jeans. Your arse is fat." But these people have already had enough trouble.

The Turbeh: "And tomorrow's winning horse will be...?"

Once inside the brewery's moodily lit bar Fedya gave me a month's course of Balkan history in about an hour. There was a lot to take in. I wish I'd recorded it. Even Julian who is knee deep in this topic said that he'd learned something new.

This session was also my 20,000 Kilometre Party. Although I couldn't be positive, not having a working mileometer, I calculated a few weeks ago that I would hit the 20K mark by Sarajevo. What better way to celebrate than with good company and a few pints of Sarajevska's dark, treacley beer?

Fedya had to leave and so Julian and I went for something to eat. "You fancy pie?" he asked. Blackburnians always fancy pie but I haven't had a real one in years. But he was talking about burek, a stuffed flaky pastry that I've had in various forms since Greece. The Greek spanakotiropita - spinach and cheese pie - is one version. It can occasionally be great but is frequently bland with watery spinach and tasteless cheese. Turkey's burek - aside from a lovely one I had in Jalova - usually had even less taste. More filling please! But as I'd headed farther north into the Balkans things had improved and, here in Sarajevo, they reached their zenith with the best meat burek I'd ever tasted, a circular dish filled with an ever decreasing radius of filo pastry, crunchy on the outside, soft and buttery further in, with a thick sausage of tasty meat throughout the centre. Perfect.

Late afternoon the next day, the second part of Julian's tour required his car. Up into the steep hills we went, where the Bosnian Serbs had been positioned, shelling and sniping at the poor sods in the town down below. It's also up on this hill that you can see the old 1984 Winter Olympics toboggan run, now derelict, graffitied and with the occasional hole blasted through to make it the ideal defensive cover.

"It's perfectly safe," Julian said, and so I walked down inside the remaining kilometre or so of track while he drove the car to the bottom. It was eery being inside the concrete tunnel amongst the darkening woods in the perfectly still evening, knowing that only a few years before these trees would have been crawling with hundreds of paramilitary launching mortars from all around. I reached the bottom of the track and had to jump from the top of a small wall. At its base was a patch of grass and a patch of concrete. "Err, aim for the concrete," Julian hinted. I looked at him uneasily. "You can't be too safe." Bosnia, especially in these hills, is littered with mines and many of the ruined buildings are booby trapped. Finishing the remaining 10,000 kilometres of UniCycle50 would be difficult with a leg missing.

Going for gold...er...mould

Sarajevo is a wonderfully atmospheric little city - one of this year's surprise highlights - but my time here was up. The next day I was off to Belgrade, capital of Serbia, with more to see than I had time to manage. I did get a few minutes inside Tito's mausoleum. As well as his tomb, his uniforms, the many gifts he'd received from foreign officials and the dozens of batons that were relayed across Jugoslavia each year to be handed to him on his birthday, there was a relief map of former Yugoslavia. A visitor had scratched out Sarajevo.


Scratched out Sarajevo (circled)


Tito, dictator though he was, is thought of as the most benign of the Eastern Bloc's Communist leaders. Using his mantra of Brotherhood and Unity he kept this fragile country at peace. It wasn't democracy but thousands weren't being butchered by their own former neighbours. Rousseau wrote: "Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men." Britain has a system that looks a bit like democracy but isn't really. Maybe other peoples need even less of it.

This evening I made it to my sixth of the seven countries to emerge from Yugoslavia, Croatia. I arrived at a town called Osijek. With the internet connected it was a relief to read that this place had got away with only light bombing and few casualties during the war. But then I scrolled further down the page. It seems that five Croatian officials from here had been condemned for war crimes commited against Serb civilians. It's Serbs killing Muslims killing Croats killing Serbs wherever you go.

Fedya has a Muslim father, a Serb mother and a Croat uncle. I'd asked him what he would do - would he take a side? - if another conflict broke out. I was hoping he'd tell me that such a thing could never happen again. But he didn't. "I'd have to leave," he said. Where's a Tito when you need him?

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Albania, Land of Mountain, Fire and Serenading Tweens


So I cycled up the steep, steep hill from the lovely lake Ohrid near Struga in Macedonia, surrounded by clear, mountain air and dense, lush forest, and eventually, after a few swear words and a lot more sweat, I reached nearly a thousand metres above sea level, where lay the border with Albania. I got through the officialdom in minutes - there was hardly anyone else there - and I was in Albania. Finally, Albania! Of all the places on this trip, Albania was possibly the one I most wanted to see because you never hear anything about it. It never wins anything. I'm not even sure it ever enters anything. What was it going to be like?

Normally when you cross a border you don't really notice a change in your surroundings. OK, the houses might become a little shabbier or a little grander, the people a little better or worse dressed, the prostitutes fitter or fatter. But cross into Albania and suddenly the thick forest was replaced with yellowing fields with the odd shrub, as though I'd jumped a thousand metres higher and I was now above the tree line. And the air was bluer, and not in a good way. It couldn't be the heat haze; it was still only eight in the morning. Was it pollution? All the photos I took looked like a crisis-abandoned travel agent's window display. Everything had gone cyan.

Coming down the hill from the border I noticed a large dog in the road. That's fairly normal. You always see the odd dog. Then I turned to my right and saw what must be ten or fifteen of 'em in a pack. Luckily they were all looking in the opposite direction, maybe devouring the last cyclist who came this way. I pedalled on and whizzed past before they could notice me.

Down and down I went. Eventually I came to people. The first person I passed was a twelve year old boy. At the top of his voice he sang out to me in English: "I love you sooooooo much!" He even did X-Factor wannabe arm gestures. I laughed. He laughed. But I kept cycling. Freak.

And then there were the hoses. If you know an Albanian and you're wondering what to get him or her for Christmas then my advice would be to buy a hose. They bloody love them. I must have counted twenty or thirty in a minute or two, erected nozzle up, pointlessly spraying water. Never into a field, mind. No, just on to a bit of tarmac, making a big, unnecessary puddle. My mum loves a water feature. I think that's what it was. Oh, you could watch a hose for hours! Sometimes they even held the hoses and sprayed them randomly at things that never needed water - like a kerb - just for the hell of it. Crazy Albanians. Maybe there was nothing on telly today. Or maybe it was another soddin' Norman Wisdom film.

I'd heard the road surfaces here were awful but so far they've been at least as good as Greece's. A bigger problem is that the roads aren't wide enough for the amount of traffic. The road from Elbasan, a major town, to Tirana, the capital, is no wider than a British country lane. And after descending back to nearly sea level it rose up again to near one thousand metres. Driving in Albania is slow going. Or it should be. They just gun it, the mad fuckers.

Once I'd got to the top of the hill I noticed a burning smell, and then I noticed smoke and bits of ash in the air, and then I noticed forest fires just metres from the side of the road. In fact, I think the road was acting as a fire break in some places. There were tons of 'em. Only little ones as yet but still. If only there'd been loads of people with hoses.

And then I descended into Tirana. There's nothing much I can say about Tirana that might make you want to come. I mean, it's not awful. Not really. The river that's marked on the map is only three metres wide and is of a similar composition to the liquid that escaped from the burst drains in Istanbul's Grand Bazaar after a sudden downpour when I was there. But if you are going to blow your disposal income on a city break then my advice would probably be - oh, I don't know - Barcelona or Prague or, well, anywhere. I'm glad I came but I will be happier to leave. Not Albania - the countryside is lovely, if bluish - but Tirana is a traffic-filled hole with little to stare at and go 'Ahhhh!' You can always watch the cars dangerously overtaking each other and go 'Arggggh!" but that's not the same.

Did you know that beards were banned in Albania for a long time? Apparently, Enver Hoxha, the Communist dictator who ruled this place for about forty years, didn't like 'em. He could probably only grow a weird, patchy, diseased-inmate one like my brother. (Just to be clear, my brother can't grow a beard. He's not a diseased inmate. Or maybe he is. I mean, I haven't spoken to him for a month or two.) And I've now got a great, big, stupid beard again. Apart from the odd bit of stubble, no one else here has a beard. I feel like a rebel.

I'm not a rebel. I'm just a pink-headed, podgy, forty-two year old who Albanian boys like to serenade. Saddo.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Stop Or The Plastic Dinosaur Will 'Ave Yer!


Some countries have been predictable. That's not necessarily an insult. Italy gave me predictably tasty pizza eight times a day. Turkey gave me predictably amiable blokes offering me glasses of tea every fifteen seconds. On the other hand, British drivers predictably wanted to drive within millimetres of me and my panniers, the inconsiderate bell ends. Other countries though are not predictable at all. In fact the only predictable thing is that something weird is about to happen.

I'd like to do a little survey. Have you ever gone through the front doors of a single hotel to find yourself in the reception of three different hotels and then had the women in charge of their respective desks start a banshee-style slanging match with each other to win your custom? Have you ever met a boxer-sized bloke with the voice of a Monty Python woman and then, ten minutes later, an old woman with the voice of Frank Bruno, clearly the outcome of some voodooistic vocal swapover? Have you ever met a man who lives under a table by a lake for half of his life, has a penchant for plastic crowns, has an underground fridge and an electronic till - though no actual electricity - and a small, plastic dinosaur as household security? I bet you said no to each of those questions. I hope you did. Well, I experienced them all in one long weekend. Welcome to Bulgaria!

You know all you need to about the pugnacious receptionists and about Mr Helium/Mrs Barry White and so I won't bore you with the details. The real star of this story in Mario.

I stopped at a tiny café near a lake fifty kilometres from Sofia. Two blokes were sat outside together, one of whom, a bearded man of about sixty, was enjoying a beer in the sun. He turned to me and asked me if I spoke English. That was odd. That's usually my question, especially in Bulgaria for which I'm lacking an MP3 language course. When I told him that not only do I speak English but I *am* English it was as though I'd given him a sudden shot of amphetamine. He stood up and danced around. He loved England, he gushed. By this point, about twenty seconds into our conversation, I'd already worked out that this beer he was slurping probably wasn't his first of the day. It might not even have been his eighth.

He continued. "I love everything about England!" Really? The weather? Nick Clegg? TOWIE? I let it slide. Y'see, Mario is a private English teacher, among other things, and wanted to practise on me. So I sat down. He bought me a coffee. And later, after our chat, when I asked if I could take a photo of him and his mate, he told me that he had better things for me to snap. And he wasn't lying.

So we went for a walk, me with camera in hand and Mario with a hole in the back of his shorts so large that I could clearly see his royal blue, bikini-style underpants. During the warmer months, he told me, he lives in Sofia for three days and then cycles the fifty kilometres to this 'house' by the lake for the rest of the week. Later I hope it will become clear why I've crowned that word with scare quotes. But we haven't got to his 'house' yet.

First we went to the hotel and bar around the corner from the café. He showed me a painting of his that he'd presented as a gift to the owner of the hotel. It was a boat on a sea and the cunning part was that the sun was a mirror. He particularly liked that bit.  He danced around a bit more. He liked dancing around.

"Look, the sun is a mirror. Look!" Yes, I've seen it.

Then he showed me his collection of windsurfing boards stored nearby. Windsurfing is his thing, y'see, and the reason why he comes to the lake. But probably also for the beer in the café.

"That's the first letter of my name, that is."

At long last we set off to his 'house'. On the way, as we walked along a country road, he told me that he would like to sing and that he was quite a good singer. But he wasn't. He launched into Rod Stewart's "We Are Sailing". If I'm honest, it's unlikely that we are going to see him in the Over 25s category of X Factor. Unless 25 is the number of bum notes you must hit per verse.

We took a turn from the road into dense woods, then down a steep banking towards the lake. "All these houses are illegal," he pointed out. We walked along a narrow path. "And here it is!" Guarding the entrance was a miniature pirate flag and a small, plastic brontasaurus.

As good as a guard dog.

OK, I thought, that's completely normal. And then we entered what I guess might be called his living room. Except that we didn't really because his house had no doors or walls or a roof or any of the things that a house usually has. What it did have was a washing line pegged with various tattered garments, a collection of tables containing the stuff that charity shops would sift and discard from their donations and a big mat, all sitting on a bit of flattened earth about ten metres up from lake shore. The assorted junk included a plastic telephone, a pretend musket and, obviously, a full-size till. "There's no electricity or running water here," he said, as though this was some sort of explanation.

"Don't forget your receipt. Oh, I'll have to plug it in. Have you got an extension lead?"


Descartes is the father of modern philosophy because he questioned the limits of what we can know. How do I know that what is happening is really happening? I could be asleep, for example. It could all be a dream. This thought occurred to me too that afternoon. If this was a dream, it was definitely a cheese dream. This was utter stilton!

Mario ran through the highlights of his abode like an estate agent hoping for a sale. He ordered me to take a photo as each feature was unveiled. I obliged, only too happy to document these events, if only to prove to myself tomorrow that they really happened.

Next to the aforementioned mat on the floor was a table. "I sleep on the mat when the weather is nice. When it's bad I sleep here." He crawled under the table exposing even more of his arse and switched on a little radio to show the entertainment system contained within. "Lovely," I said. Music was clearly important to him. He tows a small inflatable containing his radio behind him while windsurfing so that his toons aren't submerged even if he is. That's quite a good idea for a madman. I can imagine him breezing along in the summer gusts engulfed by the mellifluous tones of Patsy Cline's "Crazy".

Mario gives a tour of the master bedroom. 

Then he showed me his fridge. Remember, there's no electricity. This was another mat, under which was a lid, under which was a polystyrene box containing bottles of water, bits of fruit and vodka. He threw me an apple. It was pretty cold. His fridge was an environmentalist's dream. Even if it was Aggie MacKenzie's nightmare.

"I also have a freezer but it's on the top of that mountain over there."

Next up was a small cupboard where he kept his valuables. It contained, he said, his ID. He opened it up. It also contained a soft porn calender. I'm assuming that the porn calendar wasn't his ID otherwise he looks pretty hot with his shirt off.

"What do you mean I look nothing like my passport photo?"

Finally, he reached into the pocket of a suit jacket - for, yes, one such jacket hung from the washing line, obviously for when he was entertaining - and removed two novelty hats, one a pirate's (he clearly liked the pirate thing) and the other a small plastic crown. He modelled them both for me. As I focussed my lens on an old man with a drunkenly crooked smile and a golden, plastic crown lopsided on his head, I wondered if I might have chosen a sachet of something other than honey for my toast from the hotel buffet that morning. A sachet of LSD perhaps.

King Lear or 'King Mental?

It was all over. The demonstration was complete. In truth, Mario came across as a complete nutjob. But I've got to admire a man of advancing years who cycles a hundred kilometres each week and spends his nights under the stars, or under a table - whether that's the table in his 'house' or the hotel bar - just so that he can pursue his passion for windsurfing. As with other people I've met recently, he's living a - erm, let's call it - different life but he's clearly enjoying himself. Mario is utterly, glue-sniffingly bonkers and yet, in reality, he isn't bonkers at all. The really bonkers person is the bloke sat in his office, staring out of the window, wishing he was somewhere on a lake rather than preparing this bloody spreadsheet.

I like it that the world has Marios and I like Bulgaria by extension. I'll be very sad to leave this country tomorrow. These six days have been a lot of fun. So, guard your house with freebies from Jurassic Park Happy Meals if you like, maintain a collection of novelty plastic headwear if you must, sleep under a table if you have to but please indulge your passion, whatever it is. Good luck to you, Mario, you utter fucking fruitcake!

Saturday, 11 August 2012

The Black Bag of Shame


I've mentioned in one of my recent blogs what a wizened old prune I've always been. Even as a seventeen year-old I could pass for fifty-five. Nearly. Well, I could easily buy bottles of Martini for my then-girlfriend and her mates, who were all fifteen at the time. It felt furtive but drinking the sickly sweet shite felt oh so good. Well, not drinking it, obviously, but its effect. I didn't know any better. It was the summer of 1987. My family had gone to Malta and left me alone for two weeks. What the hell else was I supposed to do with a houseful of fifteen year old girls?

Now that I'm 637 (and a half), I thought that this furtive feeling was just a distant memory. But in Turkey, "the system" reduced me to clandestine pickups of bags of booze just like the olden days. I took to downloading some vintage Terence Trent D'Arby tracks from YouTube just to make it all feel genuinely teenage again.

As far as I can see, Turkey has an odd relationship with alcohol. Although the country itself is officially secular, the vast majority of Turks are Muslims and, according to the Koran at least, Muslims don't drink. Now, Turkey is known in the west for offering a fairly relaxed sort of Islam, certainly not the kind of place that's going to stone the missus if she looks suggestively at a donkey, but does this relaxation extend to alcohol?

There are lots of establishments in Turkey that advertise the fact that they sell their expensive booze. Outside of Istanbul, restaurants rarely seem to sell it. Even those outdoor cafés that do sell it, like those in Bandirma, never had anyone visibly drinking it. Supermarkets almost never sell it either (I've seen only two that do in the whole of Turkey and one of those was in Istanbul) and neither do most corner shops. But if the bright blue logo of Turkish brand Efes or the easier-to-miss gold of Tuborg is shown around a corner shop's logo, then it's an off licence. And yet I seem to be the only person who goes into these places. Here's the procedure:

1. I walk in. The shopowner looks guilty. He never smiles (which is unusual for a Turk).

2. I walk to the beer fridge. The shopowner has already located and opened a black - always black - carrier bag.

3. If there does happen to be anyone else in the shop, especially someone under eighteen, he is now sniggering, as though I am buying a stack of Gusset Munchers porn mags or something worse, like Model Train Enthusiast.

4. The beer quickly goes into the black plastic bag and the financial transaction is carried out with the utmost haste. I leave feeling guilty for reasons I can't fathom.

The black bag

As a side note, during Ramadam (or Ramazan in Turkey) even this is not always possible because some of the off licences stop selling alcohol entirely, which sort of makes you wonder why they don't just take a month's holiday.

And so I'm puzzled. If I'm the only person buying from these shops, then how do these shops make any money? They can't just have set up with the knowledge that I'll be passing through town, lovely though that thought is. If they have, they've certainly overestimated how much I can drink, although if they reduced their price I'd be prepared to give it a go. Like I say, I'm puzzled.

UniCycle50's Facebook page now has at least five Turkish Likers. If any of you can give me more information on this topic (without incriminating yourselves if that's a possibility) then I'd love to know.

The black-bag-as-cloaking-device in itself is odd. While cycling I've popped into such an off licence and bought only a can of Coke and then you get an innocent white carrier bag (that is, if you don't tell them in time that you don't need a carrier bag for a single can of Coke), a white carrier bag that is probably hand-stitched from the hymens of a thousand virgins. So the black bag doesn't hide that you've bought some naughties; it merely highlights the fact. But maybe that's the idea. Maybe it's the black bag of shame, the mark of Cain, the Judas sack.

None of this affects me now. I've moved on to Bulgaria where the opposite is the case. This afternoon I was sat on a lovely, sunny terrace drinking a decent pint for 66p. Whereas Turkey usually sold a bottle of rubbish blended whisky for €50 (I kid you not), here a large bottle of schnapps is a tenth of the price. Alcohol here is so cheap and so plentiful that I might just end up dead in a gutter. If that happens, please would someone pop around and cover my face with the black bag of shame.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Bishops and God and a Load of Istanbul


There's nothing like consistency within the Church. When a youthful and virtuous loved one is struck down by terminal cancer and you ask a vicar or priest how God could let this happen, he'll respond with some meaningless tat that we can't know the mind of God or something equally vacuous. All very convenient. But in Nicaea back in the year 325 it was possible to know exactly the mind of God, even to define the mind of God, because hundreds of bishops descended upon the place to discuss that very thing.

The walls of Nicaea

It's all now a bit laughable what these people were seriously discussing. Was the Father and the Son one in divine purpose or also one in being? Easy, neither. It's all made up. Next! What date should Easter be? Easy, it doesn't matter. Probably later is better because we might then get some decent weather for the Bank Holiday weekend. Next! What is the role of the Holy Ghost? What, seriously? It wasn't a ghost; it was Mr Jenkins from the amusement park in a mask, you pesky, meddling kids. And on it went.

They also came up with a list of new church laws, or canons. The first of these was to forbid self-castration, which seems like a sensible if largely unnecessary rule to me. Or maybe it was the fashion at the time, I don't know. Perhaps you couldn't walk down the street without someone chopping off their bollocks and lobbing them at passing traffic. Another rule was that the presence of a younger woman in the house of a cleric was banned. Given that these were Catholics it might have been wiser to prohibit the presence of eight year-old boys. I mean, when do you ever hear of priests and young women?

Anyway, why am I talking about all this? Because I'm here, in Nicaea, the very place where all this, erm, important stuff was decided. It's not called Nicaea any more; it's now known as Iznik. You can see why the bishops and their vast entourages descended upon this place. It's lovely. It sits by a large, turquoise lake, surrounded by rugged mountains on all sides. They also do nice kebabs here. I bet that was a big pull. If you've been discussing ecumenical matters all day, in the evening you'll probably want to go out, get lagered up and finish off with a tasty doner or two.

The lake of Nicaea

This is one of my last stops here in Asia Minor. My vast Turkish adventure is coming to an end. I cycled the 1,200 kilometres from the Greek-Turkish border in the north to the scolding hot south coast via the cities of Bursa, Eskişehir and Konya, the home of whirling dervishes. From there I ferried myself to Cyprus and back and after a quick visit to Turkey's modern capital of Ankara and another 1,000 kilometres I'm now a day's ride from the ferry in Yalova that will take me to Istanbul. All the roads entering Constantinople from the east are motorways and arriving by boat seemed the most romantic way to take myself back to Europe. Besides, I saw Michael Palin arrive in Istanbul by boat and I wanted to copy him.

After a week's break with The Lovely Nina in Byzantium, it's only two or three days before I'm out of here and I cross over into Bulgaria. And then after doing only nine capitals between the end of March and early August, I'll be visiting another nine in a single month. This is their highest concentration on the entire tour - Sofia, Pristina, Skopje, Tirana, Podgorica, Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana - in about 1,900 kilometres on the road. And after last year's grand total of four currencies (sterling, euros, Swiss francs and Czech korunas), I'll have to deal with nine different ones in 30 days. Expect me to be offering handfuls of change to Slavic shopkeepers with the bewildered look of a British pensioner.

And then two days from Ljubljana, over the border in Austria, it'll all be done for another year. 2012 has disappeared even more quickly than the last one, whatever it was called. By the time I reach Graz for my second visit on this tour in mid-September I will have cycled something close to 22,000 kilometres. Happily I'll still only be two-thirds of the way to the end with 16 more capitals left to do, including the largest capital by population (Moscow), the capital within the dodgiest country (Minsk in Belarus) and the capital with the most disgustingly pungent canned fish dish (Surströmming in Stockholm). They have to open it outside under running water, for Christ's sake.

Britain and Britons can often be quite down on Europe. But it is the most amazing place on the planet. The concentration of capitals and national differences are what makes it the most interesting continent on which to cycle. Within an hour you can find yourself in an entirely different culture. That wouldn't happen in the States or in Australia. Where would be the fun in cycling there? God knows. Or at least a bunch of bishops could visit my hotel room in Nicaea and decide for Him.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Mr Bore, Mr Big and Mr Bullshitter


Places like this worry me. They make me feel like a snob. I'm not judging people on appearances, honest, just on the shite they spew. Does that make me a snob? Sod it.

Here's a story I may have told before but I can't remember. To be honest, this little bit of my trip is a genuine holiday and I've been on the gin. It's way too hot for me to be arsed to search back through eighteen months of blogs to check if I'm going through old material. Anyway, here's the story. In 1996, I moved to Austria for work. It was a normal office job, just like any in the UK. What I loved was that, despite the number of people in my division, there were no office politics - people worked and lived and ate large quantities of pork in beautiful, peaceful tranquility.

Then I had German lessons and, over a period of months, I gradually understood what my co-workers were jabbering on about and it was loaded with just as much hateful nastiness as anywhere else. Well, I say 'just as much' but I don't remember anyone in Britain ever claiming that "the Jews got just what they deserved". And that wasn't from some eighty-odd year-old, ex-soldier diehard Nazi but from Astrid, a thirty year-old woman in my office. Who also happened to be a Nazi.

The moral of this story is that, unless you can understand exactly what people are saying, it's easy to hear them through rose-cadenced ear trumpets. As I pass through Europe, with my minimal language skills, everyone seems sweet 'n' lovely but maybe that's a failing on my part. If I could truly grasp everything they said i'm sure I would find that many of 'em are just as tedious or mean-spirited as a lot of Brits that I do understand.

You can use a foreign language to hide your defects. Living in Spain, I saw people with huge personality flaws choose partners with a different native language. While most people asked "She's lovely. Why in God's name is she going out with that dick?", missing linguistic pointers she didn't so easily see through the ruse that he wasn't an absolutely massive tosser. If you're reading this and suspect that you might be an absolutely massive tosser, take that as a top tip: Pick an Auslander. (Also, thinking about it now, since she couldn't have been a native English speaker either, maybe she was an absolutely massive tosser too. Good luck to 'em!)

Anyway, I'm currently in The Ship Inn Hotel, a very nice hotel it seems to me, in Girne, northern Cyprus. This is the first time I've been around Englanders since leaving Spain. It makes me realise how important it is to surround yourself by people who you genuinely like and who don't bore the tits off you. Whether I lived in Spain or Austria or the UK, I've tried to do this. To be honest, here in Cyprus, I've sort of kept myself to myself.

So to the 'personalities': There's one poolside nob - Mr Bullshitter - who goes around telling people 'facts'. One fact is that, here in Cyprus, next week it will be 55C. This has inflated in the telling. The first time it was the high 40s, and then 50. It's like a weather forecast based on Turkey's former rate of inflation. Incidentally, for all global warming's impending doom, the official records say it's never been hotter than about 44C here and so the chance of its reaching 55C is a bit slim, anorexic even. And also the weather forecast disagrees with him.  Maybe he has his own weather satellite, I dunno. To give an additional flavour of how unscientific his approach is, he pointed towards the tops of the local mountains and explained, given the haze, how much hotter it is up there. Sorry, fella, it doesn't work like that. Read a book. There's a reason the snow's on top of 'em and not the bottom.

There's another - Mr Bore - who's told precisely the same set of stories to everyone here, except me fortunately, but I've now heard them forty-six times. He always has a few days covering up to avoid a sunburn, he's been bitten by precisely fifteen mosquitoes - one right between his toes - and he likes to sit around the pool during the day but, at night, y'know, he needs a bit of entertainment. C'mon, man, if you have to repeat yourself so frequently at least make it a story worth telling. Regale us with how the Jews got just what they deserved or something juicy like that.

The final star is Mr Big, a bloke who commands a small crowd of people to listen to his wisdom about how he moved to Greek Cyprus nine years ago and comes up to Turkish Cyprus a few times a year. They sit around him, enrapt, like infant school children as he tells of his mystical adventures. Listen, if you're reading this in the UK or in your home country and think that there's something special or tricky about moving abroad, there isn't. It's often a lot better than living in your home country (if your home country is the UK, anyway) but, technically speaking, it's a piece of piss and any idiot can do it because I've spoken to lots of 'em. Hell, I am one of 'em! If you want to do it, go for it. If you don't, fine. Just don't think that you've done anything 'cool' or should earn any kudos by moving. Even snails can do that.

Tomorrow I leave and I can reimmerse myself in a world of linguistic incomprehension where I suspect I will be more at ease, happy wallowing in my ignorance. Unfortunately to do this I have to spend a few days cycling up massive bloody hills in 40-odd degree temperatures and so I'm torn. And I'll have no gin.

OK, the availability of gin would usually trump being surrounded by idiots, but I really do have to leave. Güle güle!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

The Day The Shit Hit The Rim


I suspect that at one point during this blog the hackneyed expression "Too much information!" will flash through your mind like a perv in a park. Don't do it; it's not worth thinking in clichés. But if that's my fault then I think it's important that as well as bragging about all the good stuff that happens to me I'm honest when things don't quite work out. And yesterday was one the shittiest days possible.

For a while I hadn't been looking forward to Wednesday. It was a longer ride than normal, out of Bursa - a strange and massive, traffic-stuffed city - with several mountains to climb and, if the previous days had been any indication, a hurricane in my face. As it turned out, with a cool-aired, half-six start, nothing but a gentle breeze, an overcast sky keeping the sun off for the uphill bits, and mountains that seemed to melt away, I was an hour and a half ahead of schedule with only eight kilometres to Bozüyük, my destination. Life was perfect. All was well.

Yes, all was well with the world...

But then it wasn't well. I got a puncture. OK, that's a pain in the arse but no worse than that. I flipped the bike over, got out one of my spare inner tubes - one I'd previously fixed - and test-inflated it. And that's when I realised that I'd previously put it back in the bag with the intention of fixing it and then I'd never actually got around to it, lazy sod. Not to worry, I had a second, brand new inner tube. I took off the tyre and reinstalled it with the new inner tube. I inflated the tube and, once again, all was rosy.

Except it wasn't. What is the one thing you must absolutely do whenever you change a tube? That's right, you check that whatever caused the initial puncture isn't still inside the tyre. Because, of course, it might puncture the second tube.

It punctured the second tube.  Had I checked it? No, I hadn't. Was the thing still inside the tyre? Of course it was. One kilometre down the road I had another flat tyre, but now I had no spare inner tubes. Brilliant! What a dick. But that was the least of my worries because that's when I noticed it: The crack. In my back wheel rim, the wheel that takes all the weight. A spoke was spontaneously removing itself and destroying my wheel in the process. I'm riding on 700Cs, a non-standard size outside of western Europe. Replacing or repairing the wheel in Turkey could take forever, or at least long enough to seriously disrupt my entire ride. To finish this year in time for the exams I might even have to miss out Cyprus, and UniCycle49 sounds crap.

I still had to get us to town. Now, of course, the overcast sky had gone. I pushed the hobbled chopper the seven kilometres to Bozüyük in the now mid-afternoon, blazing July sunshine.  And I burnt my stupid face off.

On the edge of town, with a similarly-coloured complexion to that of Mr Strong, I found an old bike repair man. He couldn't do much about the non-standard, cracked rim but he trued up the wheel so that the knackered spoke wasn't deforming it and we repaired the puncture. At least the bike was rideable now, for the final 500 metres to the only hotel in town.

The edge-of-town old cycle repair man

So with a broken rim, a crispy face, an evening of puncture repair ahead, a solution to find to the mystery of how to replace 700C wheels in a country that doesn't generally sell them, and the prospect of a three-year trip in tatters, my mood wasn't great. I thought I would cheer myself up by doing something crazy, like going to the toilet. Maybe I'd do a little wee or something. Y'know, fellas, sometimes, as you're in the bathroom and heading bowlwards, it's a discrete time to let out a little gas, relieve some pressure. And there's nothing wrong with that. As long as it is gas.

Mmm. Mine wasn't. Despite avoiding Turkish tap water and not having had a kebab for a couple of days, my insides were, unknown to me, molten and, yes, inside my cycling shorts, I cacked myself. There you go. Feel what you like: disgust, sympathy, sexual arousal, whatever, it's out there now. In retrospect, perhaps it had been very wise not to look forward to Wednesday.

You might be wondering why I'm telling you this. Part of it stems from a similar incident in Majorca, aged 18, when, with another dodgy stomach, something equally tragic happened on a mountainside while walking with my brother and he has loved to bring it up at parties whenever possible while I frantically deny it. So instead, to exorcise the demons before they emerge, I'll tell everyone now and get it out of the way. Don't go thinking I'm a serial cacker - twice in a lifetime isn't bad. I think. Now that I've confessed, I realise that there was no one present during this second incident and it need never have got out at all. Unlike the...ah, you know.

Anyway, it's alright now. The cycling shorts are thoroughly washed. Today, I managed to crawl the forty kilometres to Eskisehir and find the one bike shop with 700C rims. While waiting for Ibrahim to rebuild my wheel, I was also entertained by Ümit, the next door barber, despite an initial misunderstanding on my part (Me: "Ah, so you're from Africa then." Him: "No, here." Me: "Oh, I thought you said Berber.") He taught me a few words of Turkish and we had an instant football connection because the unfortunately named Turkish star, Tugay, had played for my team, Blackburn Rovers a few years back. My trip was saved.

Ibrahim, gladiator of the wheel

Ümit, a barber, definitely not a Berber

And I've managed to go the whole day without soiling myself. So far. Things are looking up.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Indestructible Cycling Celebrities


As I was on my way out of Greece, Sean Conway was cycling in from Turkey. We met not far from Asprovalta. Sean was one of nine cyclists who set off from London on 18th February to race 18,000 miles around the world and attempt to claim the record for the fastest time. Before the race, the record stood at an amazing 106 days. It once took me that long to cycle from Preston to Burnley. (There was a lot of traffic.)

Unfortunately, Sean's attempt was scuppered when he was hit at 55 miles an hour by a truck in America. It just ploughed into the back of him. He spent a couple of weeks in hospital and then another week being kindly looked after at the home of one of the hospital's medical staff. With such a delay, as well as continuing back problems, the record was out of reach but he decided to finish his trip.

Sean and his, erm, heavily laden bike


I noticed that he wore a helmet. Because I don't, and because my mum always tells me off for not wearing one, I asked him if it had helped during the accident. "Without the helmet, I would have been dead," he replied. Hmm, that really wasn't the answer I was looking for. The extremely dense, centimetre-thick foam at the back of the helmet was crushed to a couple of millimetres, and the top of the helmet itself had been cracked in two. I hope my mum doesn't read this one.

The existing world record had been completed as a supported tour, in other words with a lot of help from a team and a car to carry the cyclist's gear and keep him refuelled. Like everyone else who set off in Februrary, Sean's attempt was self-supported, which made it even more challenging. I couldn't believe how little he was carrying. I've carried more than that on a ride to the pub. Compared to his, my bike looked like something with advanced elephantiasis. From this handlebars, his sleeping bag hung like a tea bag. "Smallest sleeping bag in the world!" he said. "And the smallest ground mat." What, that bag included a ground mat as well? He was wild-camping most nights, setting up a sheet from the top of his bike wherever he happened to be at darkness and sleeping beneath it. God help him if he ever passes through Blackburn come sundown.

Although I massively admire Sean's athleticism and sporting ability, it's not the way I'd like to see the world. He was cycling from before dawn till after dusk. Now that the competition is over he can slow down a little but he's still pushing it. Even since the accident, he hadn't done a day of fewer than one hundred miles, whereas I hadn't done a day over one hundred (well, maybe one, but with a non-functioning cycle computer it's hard to tell). But with such a punishing schedule there's no time to see the sights, to rest for a snooze on a pretty hillside or to chat to the people you cycle past. I'm pretty sure that our conversation would have been a lot shorter had the record still been within reach. And I couldn't have blamed him. Paula Radcliffe doesn't stop for a natter during a marathon, does she? I suppose we're different animals. He's a top sportsman and I'm a lazy sod.

Mike Hall, one of the guys who set off with him, won the race and the record, slashing the time to just 91 days. That's an average of nearly two hundred miles per day, which is simply mental! Sean still hankers for a record of his own. He's thinking of trying to beat the current fastest north-to-south-Africa time. I hope he manages it. He's a fine bloke and he deserves a record of some sort. Although if he can't manage a record using his bike, as his photo shows, he may be in with a chance of World's Most Ridiculous Beard. And bear in mind, this is coming from someone's whose own stupid beard killed a woman in Bratislava last year.

I said goodbye to Sean and continued towards my home for the evening. I knew that it wasn't far but I passed right through the town where I thought it was. I asked an old fella if the campsite was nearby. He pointed up the road and said in heavily accented English, "Fifty kilometres!" No, surely not. I'd already done a hundred kilometres today. For Sean, an extra fifty would have been trivial, but not for me. I was ready, nah, desperate for a cold beer. Then the old fella showed me his forefinger and, with his other hand, slide a finger halfway down it. Ah, not fifty kilometres, but half a kilometre away. That's better. Even me and my stupid, fat bike could manage that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The World's Worst Philosophy Tour


I first went to Athens in 1997. Acropolis aside, it was hard to like the place. It's certainly no Rome or Prague. But since then, having studied philosophy, I thought that perhaps I'd see a different side of Athens, the Athens of old, the Athens that gave us some of the superheroes of thought. So, for UniCycle50's Athenian adventure, I put together a philosophy tour. In my tour group, apart from me - the guide - was The Lovely Nina and absolutely no one else. Which, as it turned out, was just as well.

Our first destination was the garden of Epicurus. Despite giving his name to an adjective that suggests excess and gorging - two swans and a koala bear for breakfast, that type of thing - his own diet couldn't have been more different. He shut himself away in his Athenian garden with his friends, wrote more books than Barbara Cartland and ate little other than bread and cheese. But this simple life made him happy. Chasing wealth is for fools.

Chasing Epicurus's garden is also for fools. The first reason we didn't find it is because it doesn't exist, not any more. But I knew that. The internet gives clues as to its possible former location, possibly in the grounds of St George's church. As a memento of our inaugural tour we found the church and I took a snap. Tour item one completed! It was only about an hour later, when I checked the map properly, that it wasn't even the right bloody church. The St George's I snapped wasn't the one in the scruffy bit of park with a woman taking a piss around the back. No, it was the nicer one we passed later that I didn't photograph.

Not the former garden of Epicurus


Anyway, no one really knows where his garden was and so I suppose it could have been near the crappy little church I photographed. In my head, anyway. But it was this sort of half-arsed planning that was to plague the rest of my first ever guided tour.

Next up was Plato's Academy. Unlike Epicurus's garden, this still actually exists although Athens seems strangely reluctant to tell anyone where it is. As a result of this, after trudging out through a delapidated industrial estate and walking for what seemed like hours in the midday heat - mainly because it was hours - we didn't find it. A quick Google once we got back to the apartment told us we'd walked right past it, and then a few kilometres further. Signposts are for the weak, not the Greek, obviously.

Stop number three on our tour was more successful. Possibly. This was a visit to Aristotle's Lyceum, a metro ride across town from the school of Plato, Aristotle's former teacher. We found a site that had some ruins in the spot where the internet said the Lyceum was, and that would have to do. There were no signs or labels, just a big metal fence behind which was - perhaps - the site of some interesting philosophical, and even more misguided scientific, teaching. But at least we saw something.

Aristotle's Lyceum...maybe


The next day - yes, softies, this is a multi-day tour! - was Socrates Day. The plan was to find the Ancient Agora in which the pug-faced thinker used to annoy people and then find the prison in which he was forced to drink hemlock as punishment for annoying those same people. Both of these locations are below the Acropolis, an area rich in sites and poor in signage. To be honest, we had more chance of finding Socrates than his prison and that option was quickly put aside. That was OK. We had a higher goal. The Ancient Agora! It's famous. It's massive. It's incredibly well-preserved. It's...it's...it's shut. What? Why? Because today, this Sunday, the 17th of June 2012, is the Greek election. It isn't usually shut on Sundays. Just this Sunday. This one Sunday, just this one Sunday, in probably four or five years of Sundays.

The Ancient Agora, Socrates' former stomping ground, closed


And with that, my philosophy tour finally ended. So The Lovely Nina and I retired to a taverna for a huge kebab and enough beers to ensure that we talked bollocks, albeit philosophically.

If you and your friends would like to participate in any future philosophical excursions that I might run, please contact me. All trips will include a pre-tour lecture in how to handle disappointment stoically.

Oh, and perhaps our timing to visit the Parthenon wasn't the best either.



Goodnight!

Sunday, 3 June 2012

To Malta - Cops and Tramps and Horrible Camps

Malta is not what I was expecting. I thought it would be another half-English, half-local, worst-of-both-worlds craphole like Gibraltar. Maybe it is in some places but not in Valletta. Valletta is fairly magnificent.

Getting here, though, was a pain. Let's forget that I had to cycle right down the leg of Italy. I mean, that bit was lovely.

Lovely, lovely Italy

And then I got to Sicily and, on Thursday, arrived at the ferry port of Catania, the harbour from which the Malta ferry leaves. Except that it doesn't, because you have to get on a bus - something the Virtu Ferries website was strangely silent about - and it drives south for an hour and a half to the real port of Pozzallo. Except that it doesn't, because there's no room on the bus for your bicycle. Strangely, though, there was enough room for the four, boxed up, metre and a half wide, flatscreen tellys loaded by a friend of the driver. Oh well. So at 7 o'clock in the evening, suddenly realising that I wasn't going to Malta and that I needed somewhere to stay in Catania, I legged it out of town to the only place my map showed a camping symbol. What the symbol didn't show was that Campeggio Europeo was The Worst Campsite In The Whole World.

I arrived at the site to be greeted by the surly, middle-aged owner who openly mocked by admittedly sad attempts at Italian. That's OK, I thought as I smiled at him. He's obese. He'll be dead soon. Passive aggression at its finest. I pitched my tent and then set out to find the site's bar or restaurant or minimarket for which there were numerous signs. The directions led me all around the campsite in a big circle until I ended up back at my tent. Mmm, so no bar or restaurant or minimarket, and I was miles from any shop. Oddly for a site lacking any entertainment at all it was full of 18 year olds. I'd find out why shortly. Luckily, there were some holiday homes next door and an amiable but deaf old bloke with admirable capitalist spirit had set up a table and a fridge selling crisps and beer and other essentials. I happily bought some of each. It's a pity he hadn't bothered to plug in the fridge. Back to the site and a visit to the lav, I found shite and what looked like vomit all over the floor. Lovely. You really should go there.

Campeggio Europeo notice - I couldn't agree more

I had a long way to go tomorrow - 140 kilometres - and so I planned to be gone by six thirty. I had my warm beer and crisps and settled down for an early night. At ten o'clock the music started. Now, I can't blame the site for this, but I'd managed to pitch my tent in the ideal spot to attend the Rizla Original Cucaracha beach party, attended by world famous DJs like, er, Monika Kruse. No, me neither.

On the other side of the slender fence behind my tent was the dirt track to get cars in and out of the event, but at least they drowned out the music. Sleep was difficult. Then, at three in the morning, the fireworks started.  At four o'clock, as some people started to leave, the car alarms kicked in. I think I managed to grab an hour around five-ish.

During the night I'd warmed myself with the happy thought of a noisy early morning department as revenge on the bleary-eyed youngsters but obviously the buggers were still partying when I woke up. I cycled off, half-comatose, to the sound of cool and funky teenagers jigging to Imagination and naff '70s disco. I think Monika Kruse is probably available for weddings and 18ths.

I cycled and I cycled. Approaching Syracuse, I was taken unawares when my nice, normal A-road suddenly and without warning turned into a motorway. This has happened before in Italy. Illegally, I keep going determined to escape at the first exit that took me somewhere useful. But then, around the next corner, in the hard shoulder sat a police car. Someone was being done for speeding. The first police bloke saw me and pretended to be angry for a bit. Seriously, how distraught could he have been? He fights the Mafia, for Christ's sake. Compared to organised crime, what's a tit on a pushbike? Faced with an apology and a smile they decided not to fine me and in the end gave me a police escort off the motorway. I wonder if the other drivers thought I was royalty.

Finally I made it to Pozzallo. I had a few hours to wait for the ferry and so I settled down for a nap on a wall inside the port, resting my head on my rucksack. "You are not allowed to stay here!" Eh? Some citrus-arsed port official had obviously mistaken me for a tramp getting my head down for the night. The way I looked, I couldn't blame him really. I had a shave once I arrived in Malta.

The super-modern ferry departed from Sicily at half nine in the evening. It had a big screen in the lounge that showed you the view from the front of the ship. Given that it was dark, the contrast was turned right up so that anything could be seen at all, making a single harbour light blaze like a sun. As we approached, Valletta was in the middle of a fireworks display, presumably to celebrate the Queen's 60th year of living on the dole. Watching the blasts and explosions on the high contrast TV screen made it look like we were arriving in Fallujah.

Turning up on a bike in a strange and pitch black port at 11pm isn't the best idea ever and luckily I'd booked the reasonably priced Castille Hotel and memorized the Google map to get there in the shortest time. What Google Maps didn't tell me was that the route I'd chosen was predominantly steep steps, which are even more unpleasant on a heavily panniered bike. By the time I arrived in reception, I was sweating more heavily than I was after I'd cycled the 140 kilometres in the mid-afternoon heat. I looked a mess. The friendly bloke on reception waived all need to check-in properly - that could wait until tomorrow - and I removed my sweat and stench from his nostrils - possibly the real reason for the hasty entry procedure - and soothed them all away in a long, hot bath.

But I was here in Malta, the second most southerly country on my trip (after Cyprus in July). And it's a great, little place. Although thinking about it, I have found one thing that is the worst of local/worst of British: Their homemade lager is a pissy 4.2% brew, similar to the stuff you get in a lot of British pubs. Last year at this time I was drinking some of the finest beers in Europe, in the Czech Republic. But it doesn't really matter. Beggars, and tramps, can't be choosers.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Bad Ideas in Business: Karaoke Kamping


My Mum worries that I'll do something stupid on this trip. Well, Mum, get worrying because for the last three nights I've camped in life-threateningly dangerous places.

The night before last, I set up camp only a denarii's throw from the ancient city of Pompeii and, given what happened there in AD 79, I doubt that my tent would be much protection. I'd always wondered how the people of Pompeii could have been caught so unawares by Vesuvius but now I know. In every Italian city, attached to one lamp post per kilometre or so, is a clock. And, without exception, that clock is always wrong. And not five minutes wrong. We're talking hours wrong. I suspect that, given the financial crisis, batteries are low on the priority list. Pompeii was suffering its own internal problems before the eruption. Someone probably predicted the eruption at six o'clock, their clocks told 'em it was three and they all thought they had a few hours to kill before they had to get moving.

A Pompeiian regrets not buying his own watch


Anyway, the night before Pompeii, my campsite was on a similar theme but even dodgier. I actually slept inside the cadera of an active volcano in Pozzuoli, just outside Naples. Patches of the ground were bubbling and spewing smoke and the whole place smelt of bad eggs. It was an official campsite but I can't help thinking that their insurance was quite high.

Bubbling mud - not the best place to pitch a tent

But last night took the danger to new levels. After a long day in the saddle I was prepared to sleep anywhere, which was just as well. I found a campsite that, from its entrance, promised a bar and a minimarket and all the, er, luxuries of camping life. There was no one at reception and so I wandered inside. Curiously, apart from one delapidated, 1970s-style motorhome it appeared lifeless. Where was the bar? The minimarket? Other campers?

Luxury campsite

In the far corner were a couple of rudimentary bungalows and then some trees. Perhaps the bar was lost in the forest. I went for a look. Suddenly a barking dog burst forth from the house, followed by its owner. I asked him if the site was open, which I suppose is a question that should worry any businessman. "Si, si!" he replied emphatically. And where is the minimarket, I asked. He told me, in Italian, that whatever I wanted he would go and get for me. Now, I suppose his system works like a minimarket, but it's not a minimarket, is it? Anyway, the price was cheap enough, and though the toilets and showers were skanky, I decided to stay. I was too knackered not too.

I set up my tent and cycled back out of the site, found a real supermarket and got some grub for dinner, brought it back and cooked it up while doing some maths on my Kindle. And then it started.

I assumed at first that the campsite was near a large hotel, maybe a specialist hotel, one that catered for the tone deaf. At disturbingly loud levels, karaoke kovered the kampsite and kudgelled me with its kakophony. But there was no hotel. The din was emanating from one of the bungalows in the corner of the site. I listened for a bit, unable not to. All the songs were in flat Italian and at the end of each tune the singer would thank an imaginary audience. Sometimes he would introduce the songs too, just like a real singer. After half an hour of this, and with no let up likely, I went to investigate.

Inside the bungalow were Nico - the campsite owner I'd met earlier - his mate Gino and Kika - the dog who wanted to eat me. Despite the rundown look of the campsite, their living room was like a NASA control centre, deep with computers, screens, mixing desks and a loudspeaker a dwarf could happily live inside. On the wall was a clock showing twenty past eight. Wow, I thought, an Italian clock that works! I was impressed. They invited me in and offered me a beer. Thanks, I replied. Then Nico got in his car and went out to buy it. See, he's a man of his word. His minimarket had sprung into action.

Nico and Gino

Once Nico was back, and after he'd performed another song, dancing like he was on X Factor, it was clear that in return for the beer I had to sing too. Who was my favourite artist, he asked. Ah, that's easy. Unfortunately their karaoke machine had no Radiohead. Damn, I thought. Damn and double damn! So they went on to YouTube and got me some Radiohead that way. Bugger. A microphone was thrust into my paw and I had to choose from a shortlist. I went for No Alarms And No Surprises (which is a cheat because I play that at home on guitar and so I know it quite well). I crooned and they seemed diplomatically impressed. What the thousands of others in the neighbouring town who could also hear it thought, we'll never know.

Their beer and encouragement got me in the mood and we took it in turns to progressively murder songs. My Karma Police was acceptable, my Bublé's Haven't Met You Yet began the descent (there's a sodding key change near the end) and I apologise to the population of southern Italy for what I did to Coldplay's Viva la Vida.

I'd been there for too long - a couple of hours at least - and, great lads though Nico and Gino were, it had to leave. What time was it, I wondered. I looked at the clock. Ah, it was still twenty past eight. Viva la Crisis!

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Drinking Holy Water in the Vatican


I'm sad, but you knew that already. No, I mean I'm with sorrowful heart. I've just left Rome and, as you know, there's no place like Rome. The Lovely Nina has flown off too. We had four days 'doing' Rome, but not in the way I think the majority of its visitors 'do' Rome. First of all, very few visitors cycle into Rome and that's because, to be fair, it's a bloody silly idea. It's fun though, in an extreme sport sort of way.

Last year, in Berlin, Nina researched our temporary home and put us right in the heart of Berlin's funky grungeland, Kreuzberg. Attempting to do the same in Rome, she opted for Pigneto, which to me sounds like the worst idea for an ice cream ever. Pigneto is famous as the location for a number of 1960s Passolini films. It also recently featured on the cover of a Morrissey album although he's basically lying on some railway tracks and, to be honest, he could just have easily shot it in Manchester, the big ponce. At least in the UK he would have been in no danger of getting run over by a train.

Like Kreuzberg, Pigneto is working class and bohemian and almost entirely devoid of tourists. In fact, it falls just off the edge of the official city centre map and so, to all intents and purposes, doesn't actually exist. Pigneto's main thoroughfare, with its graffiti-covered walls enhancing an already colourful daily market, morphs at night into a student-filled street party with more bars than Strangeways and, at times, a similar police presence. It is, after all, called Pigneto. But this was real Rome, where the smiles weren't attempts to sell you something and where the beer didn't need to cost six euros a pint as it seemed to in most of the tourists traps closer to the centre.

Our first full day was a typical tourist fortnight. We saw the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and, er, absolutely everything else that Rome has to offer. In total we walked three hundred and sixty seven miles. This allowed us to take it easy for the rest of our stay, absorbing our base and its surrounding areas, eating far too much pizza and waiting for feet to grow back on to our bloodied stumps.



Speaking of pizza, I highly recommend the potato and rosemary pizza at Super Pizza in another student area of town, San Lorenzo, although Nina mockingly described it as 'a crisp pizza'. Super Pizza provides its grub in a manner similar to rolling sushi. The chef at the back knocks out a giant rectangular pizza, 18 inches by 36, a different flavour every few minutes, and punters queue for a slice or two of whichever flavours grab them. Even if it's a crisp pizza. And it wasn't a crisp pizza. She just had a burnt bit.

More importantly, I had a challenge to complete. With only an hour or so in the Vatican - a country in its own right - I needed to consume something I'd never had before. Finding something original in Popeland (TM) was always going to be a problem. The Benedict-faced lollipops that Stewart Lee talks about were either an invention of his or they are no more. At least that's what Elaine, a Canadian OU student and Rome tour guide, told me and she should know. The religious tat shops liberally scattered throughout Rome certainly didn't have any. I always had that black Chinese Egg of Doom to fall back on just in case, but surely there would be something. And then we saw it. A roadside fountain, spewing forth what, given its location, could only be - ta-daaaah! - Holy Water. So I drank some and I saw the light, but then again it was quite a sunny day.



Holy Water is a difficult concept to grasp. I can understand the instant at which the water might become holy - after a blessing or, of course, when piped through a Vatican fountain. But when, if ever, does it stop being holy? Does Holy Water have a memory? Homeopaths believe in the memory of water and they usually talk a lot of sense, if by 'a lot of' I actually mean 'absolute non'. And if Holy Water touches non-Holy Water, what happens? Does it all become infected with the spirit of the Lord or is the holiness diluted and the combined water only, say, Partially Pious Water? And what about when it passes through my body? Is my subsequent urinal outflow now spiritual? When someone says, "I wouldn't piss on him if he was on fire", could I now actually offer this as a sort of resurrection service? There could be money in it. And, finally, if the Holy Water merges in my stomach with the pizza I had for lunch, does that mean that twenty-four hours later I will have a Holy Shit? I think the Church needs to provide some answers. Mmm, that'd be a first.

Anyway, we came, we saw, we conked out. Rome is no more, but Naples comes in three days, and Malta is a week or so after that. And The Lovely Nina will await me in spicy Istanbul, wearing a fez, just like that. Life is good. Especially now that I'm holy.

By the way, God says hi.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

San Marino 1 - Blackburn Rovers 0


Welcome to San Marino or, to give it its full title, The Most Serene Republic of San Marino.

The most serene person in San Marino must be the centre forward of their national football team, stood up front the whole game knowing that he's never going to get a kick. San Marino are officially the worst team in the whole world, right at the bottom of FIFA's rankings. Since their inception in 1986 it took fourteen years before they won a game. Fourteen years is bad. That's Graham Taylor bad. They do, however, hold two world records. The first is that they were on the receiving end of the largest thumping in national footballing history when Germany battered them 13-0. And what can the other record be? One more of humiliation perhaps? No, they scored the fastest ever goal - after only eight seconds - in World Cup competition in 1993. Against Liechtenstein perhaps? Or the Faroe Islands maybe? No, against England. One of our better days.

San Marino apparently has no natural level ground. None at all. If two Sanmarineses serenely want to play, say, a game of Subbuteo they have to take their felt pitch and little plastic fellas to Italy for want of a large enough flat surface. And I know that this is absolutely true and not something that I've just made up. I cycled up to the town of San Marino that sits atop a 750 metre hill in the middle of the country that is San Marino. And I didn't see a single person playing Subbuteo. It's bloody hilly!



As you might expect, the views are spectacular. From the top of San Marino I could see my mum and dad's house on the Isle of Man. OK, no, I couldn't. But I could see a mum and a dad, and a house, and a man. No one else was up there on a bike. This keeps happening to me - going over the Pyrenees both times, cycling up the rock of Gibraltar - why is that? Perhaps for biking up a huge hill I'd earned some mini-star appeal and that's why a Japanese girl wanted to take my photo. A little later a young Italian waved his camera towards me. Aw shucks! So I posed once again but then his impression changed to one that said, "C'mon, you dick, I want you to take a photo of me and my woman." Fair enough. But that must happen to Brad Pitt all the time.

Anyway, fearing the potentially poisonous Chinese black egg that was going to be my contingency plan should I have failed to find anything truly original to eat in San Marino I managed to assemble an entire meal. For main course I had a couple of piadinas, which I suspect are simply San Marino's answer to paninis and which I also suspect I should have cooked first. This was followed by genuine San Marino coffee yoghurt, which was pretty foul and certainly worse than that poo sausage. And this collection of goodies was flushed down the neck hole with Hell Beer. Now, knowing a little German I know why the beer is probably called Hell (although you wouldn't spell it exactly like that) but this is an Italian beer and so I reckon they've opted for that moniker just to annoy the Catholics.



I was expecting San Marino to be another Liechenstein, a boring, pointless historical relic that should long since have packed up and quit. But it wasn't. It was stunning. Go and see it!

To top the evening, I noticed that the campsite's internet room had a telly with a Sky controller. Could it be true? Y'see, Blackburn were playing Wigan tonight on Sky in the game of the season. If Blackburn didn't win then they were definitely relegated. And yes, even on Italian Sky, the Blackburn game was on. Except that it wasn't really because the players didn't seem to turn up, with only, from memory, a single attempt on target. And so to end a lovely day I watched Blackburn descend into the Championship.



Mmm...maybe San Marino aren't the worst team in the whole world after all.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

Great Bullshitters Of Our Age: Amorth the Ghostbuster

"Old exorcists never die. They just give up the ghost." I'd like to put that on a t-shirt and send it to Gabrielle Amorth - Roman Catholic priest and lifelong president of the International Association of Exorcists - but he'd never wear it. He prefers dresses like the rest of 'em.

I left Parma, full of prosciutto and pancetta and pasta and beef and chocolate mousse, courtesy of the wonderful Silvia (see the OU Platform's blog) and headed towards Modena. Modena is the home of just about every Italian sports car manufacturer, but surely it should be more famous for generating the world's most famous bullshitting Ghostbuster.

In his career Gabrielle Amorth claims to have performed 70,000 exorcisms, which works out at eight per day. It sounds to me like he's been on the spirits. Seventy thousand exorcisms might be feasible if you sit in an office all day and have the demons come to you, but I would have thought that, if you were really possessed - Linda Blair possessed - you probably wouldn't catch the bus, turn up at his place and ask to have Caspar removed. You'd be strapped to a bed vomitting pea soup. And so if he really did perform 70,000 exorcisms he must have worked his arse off. In fact, he must have worked like a man possessed. And surely that would have caused him some worrying moments of reflection.

So what's the secret to being a successful exorcist? According to Amorth, the key is to be "completely detached from monetary concerns, profoundly humble and treasure obscurity". As he obscurely wrote in his book on the subject. Just before doing the Sunday Telegraph interview. Or the one on telly with Anthony Head. That kind of obscurity.

I mentioned Linda Blair earlier. Amorth claims that his favourite movie is - can you guess? - yes, The Exorcist. Really? That's a bit like gardener Alan Titchmarsh choosing his favourite film as Day Of The Triffids. He claims that The Exorcist is very realistic, but that some of the effects have been exaggerated. What, you mean the rotating heads and stuff like that? He's just trying to make his job sound sexy. Besides the priest in that film ends up dead. When did that ever happen to Amorth? Silly sod.

In that film, Linda Blair famously screams the insult: "Your mother sucks cocks in hell." I've always found that to be more of a comfort than an insult. Given the range of agonising fates that could befall you in Hades - y'know, fish hooks in the eyes, lava on the gonads, spikes up the arse - I would only be too happy to opt for the Cock Sucking Department. In fact, I'd write a little note to that effect upon entry and hand it to Lucifer personally. Please don't think me sexually confused. I just don't like pain. And besides, I've got at least one Facebook friend who, based on her regular posts on the subject, would consider that punishment a very Heaven. (And no, it's not you. I'm safe. I'm pretty sure she doesn't read this.)

Anyway, I've digressed. I cycled around Modena looking for ghosts. Perhaps Amorth had been inspired as a lad by the sheer quantity of ghouls in his neighbourhood. The only ones I could find were in the photo collection at the base of Modena's lovely Ghirlandina Tower, a tribute to the young blokes killed fighting the Nazis.



Oh no. I've finished on a downer. What we need is someone to raise our spirits. Who you gonna call?

Sunday, 29 April 2012

Eating Maggots in Monaco


I'm not proud of where I'm from, not Britain, the north of England nor Blackburn. It was purely an accident of birth and, having travelled a bit, I know there's nothing special about any of those places. But if someone has such pride, far be it from me to piss on his chips, or his frogs' legs, or his pizza, or whatever his national dish is. Please remember this - it's important for later.

I arrived on the outskirts of Monaco, which is only a kilometre or so from its centre. Monaco is tiny. I entered a tunnel and it was immediately obvious that this isn't an ordinary sort of place. Most countries build tunnels as a necessity, to bury through a pesky mountain that's in the way, and even then they keep them as small as possible to reduce costs . Not Monaco. Today's tunnel was merely a bypass, and a bypass that contained at least two roundabouts. Roundabouts in a tunnel? Mental. Anyway, the bypass did its job a bit too well. It spat me out the other side of the country making me miss it entirely. I heaved the bike around and found another way in.

I cycled around for a while looking for the casino as a nice location for my official photograph but I couldn't find it. I'd been here before, about twenty five years ago, and so I knew I wasn't missing much. I've never really understood why a casino is associated with wealth, exotic cocktails and sophistication while a betting shop is associated with poverty, alcoholism and tiny biros. At heart they're both the same, although admittedly it's hard to imagine James Bond in a bookie's. Monte Carlo's casino is just slot machines and spinning wheels. It's Blackpool's Golden Mile in an Armani suit.  

Bugger the casino. I found a lovely location for the photo, the new breakwater on the harbour.



It was also time for my Eat Something Silly I've Never Had Before challenge. Surveying all the opulence before me, the speedboats the size of houses, the million dollar apartments, the Pradas and Versaces, I reached into my bag, took out a packet of maggots and ate them.



Now, you might consider this to be cheating but I see it as a contingency plan. I assumed that there would be a few places on this trip, the ones I could cycle through in ten minutes, in which it would be difficult to find something I'd never eaten before. Enter Dean. Dean is a Nerja padel friend. That's someone I play padel with, rather than someone I go paddling with. There's an important difference. Dean gave me a packet of BBQ-flavoured maggots for just this type of occasion. They're deep fried - not live - I'm not a monster. And so I ate them, took my photograph and - job done - cycled out of Monaco to visit my cousin Vicky and her fella, Richard, who live just the other side.

Vicky used to work for Riviera Radio, the only English language radio station on the coast. She's freelance now but still arranged to interview me at the radio station in Monaco the next day so that details of my trip could be broadcast to thousands of uninterested, gin-soaked, retired Brits (apart from the four lovely ones who Facebook-befriended me and who never touch a drop of gin, probably). But as an upshot of that, a young and enthusiastic puppy dog of a bloke from Monaco's television station wanted to do an interview with me for the telly the next morning.

We met at the harbour again. With beard and straggly hair, I looked like one of Jesus's disciplines, framed by all the things that would have caused my boss to yak on about camels and eyes of needles. Then the puppy dog interviewed me. There was pride in his questions. He clearly loved where he was living. He was a servant of Monaco. The first few questions went alright. "And what do you do in each capital?" he asked. "Well, one thing I like to do is eat something I've never eaten before. In France I had an andouillette and in Switzerland I even ate a marmot," I replied. And then it came. "And what did you eat in Monaco?" he beamed, probably imagining my munching down caviar, or oysters, or a big bag of diamonds.

Oh dear.

Could I be honest? Had I really cycled ten thousand kilometres to arrive in his magnificent Monaco to eat a handful of maggots? Is there anything less associated with Monaco than maggots?

"I had barbajuan," I replied. Luckily, the day before, Vicky had sourced a Monegasque pastry, stuffed with bette, a special leaf, but, to all intents and purposes, spinach. The barbajuan was lovely but I've eaten pastry before, and I've eaten spinach before, but diplomacy states that sometimes it's simply better to lie about eating invertebrates. I didn't want to hurt him. Besides, maybe a non-maggot-loving billionaire watching this on the box would be intrigued by my ride and sponsor me a million pounds. Or pay squillions for the film rights. Yes, of course. That's exactly how you become a billionaire, giving away tons of money to an insect-eating tit.

It turns out I was right. No one and his cheque book got in touch.

If you're interested, I'm also carrying a black, shrink-wrapped Chinese egg that curiously has no sell-by date. Roll on San Marino. And food poisoning.